Everyone aspires to be somebody, and no one wants to be a nobody. From the depth of our souls, there is a persistent cry for personal significance. This universal search for meaning manifests itself in a variety of ways, from self-seeking to self-sacrifice. It seems that we are prepared to do anything to convince ourselves, if not the rest of the world, that we really matter and that our lives are worthwhile.
Unfortunately, most people are frustrated in their quest for significance. The present system of elitism and rankism only allows a select few to fulfill their aspirations. For example, many students are competing for admissions into prestigious professions, such as medicine, law and psychology, but only a small percentage are successful.
The baby-boomers represent another case in point. After years of struggle, most of them have found themselves stuck in their career tracks or displaced as a result of downsizing or mergers; and their dreams for success have become distant memories.
Once becoming members of the winners’ circle, the insiders naturally want to maintain their hard-earned privileges by keeping others out as long as they can. The outsiders will continue to wage a battle to get in, to the extent that they remain driven by the desire to be somebody.
Is Humility Practical?
How do we practice the virtue of humility in such a competitive, winner-take-all world? Is humility practical? We can all agree that humility is an admirable quality in others, because we feel safe and comfortable around people who are meek and humble. But when it comes to ourselves, we may consider humility a hindrance to success and a by-product of failure.
How can anyone achieve success without ambition and a competitive spirit? Who does not feel elated and proud after accomplishing something great? Humility appears to be a foreign concept in a capitalist economy.
Perhaps, humility seems to make sense only when we find ourselves soundly defeated. Then, we can at least claim that we have learned the important virtue of humility, which is sorely lacking in others. Such self-consolation gives us the needed reprieve, until we are ready to get back on our feet to fight yet another battle.
However commonsensical and appealing, the above line of reasoning actually prevents us from achieving a deeper understanding of the virtue of humility. In this essay, I will attempt to clarify some of the misconceptions, present different perspectives of humility, consider its practical implications, and finally propose a positive psychology of humility.
Clarifying Some Misconceptions
The Quest for Significance vs. Selfish Ambition
The search for meaning and significance should not be confused with personal ambitions for worldly success. Meaning fulfillment can be achieved only through knowing who we are and becoming what we are meant to be.
A clear sense of identity cannot be found from external circumstances; it can only be built on the foundation of core values and beliefs, which define our selfhood. Similarly, a clear sense of purpose cannot be found from trappings of success; it can only be based on a deep conviction of our calling and mission in life.
According to Alfred Adler, selfish ambitions for fame, power and wealth are misguided, because in the end, they only lead to disillusion rather than fulfillment. The trappings of success never fill the inner void for meaning and significance.
Personal Significance vs. Pride
As well, the need for significance should not be confused with pride. Significance refers to a sense of one’s self-worth and self-esteem. The belief that we are created in God’s image provides a firm basis for personal significance. To love and to be love are also key ingredients of personal significance, which can be derived from a variety of sources. Humility comes naturally from the existential/spiritual perspective, because meaning fulfillment is primarily a gift, which comes from serving others and serving God.
Although pride appears to be a close cousin to personal significance, it has a very different origin. Pride is egotistic and destructive, contrary to the discovery of meaning.
Traditionally, Christians have considered pride as the root of human sins. For example, John Calvin considers pride the very essence of human depravity and rebellion against God. Pride feeds on elevating oneself over all others, including God. Eventually, pride leads to isolation and self-destruction, the natural consequence of having overstepped boundaries and stepped on others in order to get ahead.
When pride is disguised as a quest for personal significance, it will take people further and further away from the path to meaning fulfillment. That is why failure can be a blessing in disguise, if it makes one pause and reflect on what really matters in life.
Self-Abasement vs. Realistic Self-Assessment
Humility is often linked to self-abasement, and the willingness to be a doormat. The word humility is derived from the Lain humilitas, that which is abject, ignoble, or of poor condition. St. Bernard defined it as “A virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself.”
From a Christian perspective, self-abasement is a natural response, and the only appropriate response, when we recognize our own poor and corrupt state in the presence of a holy God. Such humility serves an important function in connecting us with faith in God and trust in His saving grace.
However, self-abasement is not always helpful in our relationship with people, because it may invite them to trample on us like a doormat. St. Thomas points out that “It is then not humility but folly to embrace any and every humiliation; but when virtue calls for a thing to be done it belongs to humility not to shrink from doing it.” (Cited in Catholic Encyclopedia)
Humility is not incompatible with realistic self-assessment. Apostle Paul once said, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you” (Romans 12:3). St. Thomas also said: “The virtue of humility consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one’s superior.”
One can maintain a humble attitude without the false modesty of denying one’s ability or diminishing one’s work. However, a humble person does not take oneself too seriously; nor does one take full credit for one’s accomplishments. After World War II, in response to all the accolades that came his way, Winston Churchill humbly commented: “I was not the lion, but it fell to me to give the lion’s roar.”
What is then true humility? It is easy to define it by negation, as we have just done. But what are the characteristics of humility? It may be instructive to learn from different religious perspectives.
The true Christian humility is embodied in Christ – in his humble birth in the manger, in his humble daily walk, and finally in his self-sacrificial death on the cross. The Apostle Paul wrote: “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedience to death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7).
One of the defining marks of a true Christian is humility, because Jesus has told his disciples: “Take my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart: and you shall find rest for your souls” (The Gospel according to Matthew 11:29).
Christian humility is paradoxical. Christ has promised: “The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12). James reinforces this point: “Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord and He will exalt you” (James 4:10).
Could we manipulate this paradox by practicing humility in order to be exalted? I don’t think it will work, because God knows our hearts and He will not fall for this kind of self-centered scheme.
If we truly follow Christ’s example, then humility will be a way of life, a habit of submitting to God’s will and a lifelong commitment of devoting ourselves to God’s calling. In daily practice, humility means to put aside self-interests in order to serve God and others whole-heartedly. Such an attitude would allow no room for a private agenda to be No.1.
Most likely, the promised reward for practicing humility is spiritual. Since humility is a foundational virtue, through humility we can experience all other virtues and blessings, including God’s commendation on Judgment Day.
The Buddhist approach to humility has a very different starting point. It begins with the concern of how to be liberated from the sufferings of life and the vexations of the human mind. The ultimate aim is to achieve a state of enlightenment through meditation and other spiritual practices.
Chan (Zen) Master Li Yuansong states that enlightenment can come only after humility – the wisdom of realizing one’s own ignorance, insignificance and lowliness, without which one cannot see the truth.
Humility is also the result of achieving the liberation of Nirvana. When one experiences the ultimate Emptiness and non-self (selflessness), one is free from suffering, vexations and all illusions of self-deception. This state of enlightenment is characterized by humility, compassion and wisdom.
It makes perfect sense that one can experience humility when one recognizes selfish ambitions as illusions, and concentrates on cultivating the mind to achieve Nirvana. Through such spiritual exercises, one is removed from selfish desires and the attractions of the world.
The central tenet of Taoism is that the purpose of life is to follow the Way or Tao. To live life according to Tao, the universal principle, one needs to embrace the principle of humility and non-striving (wu wei). This philosophy is actually quite practical, because it enables people to live in tranquility and contentment even in the midst of poverty, wars and natural disasters.
This philosophy of life also discourages people from competing for material gains and personal power. As a political philosophy, it teaches leaders to lead by following the Way rather than through coercive power or military might.
If the sage would guide the people, he must serve with humility.
If he would lead them, he must follow behind.
In this way when the sage rules, the people will not feel oppressed…
Accept disgrace willingly…
Accept being unimportant…
Surrender yourself humbly; then you can be trusted to care for all things.
Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things.
But never be proud.
Because this is the natural way.
Creating without claiming,
Doing without taking credit,
Guiding without interfering,
This is Primal Virtue.
Mask your brightness.
Be at one with the dust of the earth.
This is primal union.
…The sage works without recognition.
He achieves what has to be done without dwelling on it.
He does not try to show his knowledge.
Although from different perspectives, all three religions emphasize humility as a cardinal virtue, essential for the attainment of other virtues and blessings. In this sense, humility is the alpha and omega of all virtues.
Humility can yield many benefits. It is certainly beneficial to mental health, social relationships, leadership, world peace and human progress. For example, a humble individual is more likely to be happy and content than a proud person. A humble attitude will also contribute to better relationships. It would be beyond the scope of this paper to discuss all the practical implications. Here, I would just like to highlight two interesting developments.
Sir John Templeton (2000) has developed what is called humble theology. He correctly points out that egotism hinders human progress. We need a humble approach towards science and theology, because no one can claim to know it all with respect to the universe and God. An open-minded, humble attitude to seek new insights and new discoveries will facilitate progress in religion and its dialogue with science.
The merit of humble theology extends well beyond the integration between science and religion. Just imagine how much progress can be made in all human domains, including world affairs, if we resort to humility and dialogue as a way to resolve conflicts rather than depending on intimation and force.
Level 5 leadership
In the area of management and leadership, humility also plays an important role. Collins (2001) recently reported the results of a five-year study of companies that made the leap from being good and competent to greatness. Among other things, great companies are able to demonstrate sustained outstanding performance for 15 years.
What should good companies do to join the ranks of such elite great companies as Coca-Cola and Intel? One of the surprise findings is Level 5 leaders. Transformation to greatness is possible because of leaders, who are able to combine extreme personal humility with intense professional will.
Level 5 refers to the highest level of leadership capabilities. The characteristics common to Level 5 leaders include: personal humility, professional will, unwavering resolve, and the practice of giving credit to others while assigning blame to themselves. Some Level 5 leaders, such as Gillette’s Colman Mockler and Kimberly-Clark’s Darwin Smith are not only humble, but also shy. They avoid drawing attention to themselves; they want to quietly focus their energy on building a great company. Collins recognizes that “Level 5 leaders are a study in duality: modest and willful, shy and fearless.”
The attributes of Level 5 leaders overlaps with some of the characteristics of servant leadership, first popularized by Robert Greenleaf (1991). In contrast to the self-seeking, celebrity-conscious leaders, servant leaders are primarily interested in developing workers and building up the company; they achieve success and even greatness through developing a great workforce. The key element common to both Level 5 leaders and servant leaders is personal humility. It is sad but true that so few leaders, including religious leaders, possess this important personal quality.
A Positive Psychology of Humility
Is humility an inherited personality trait? Can it be cultivated? The consensus is that like most psychological attributes, humility is the product of interactions between nature and nurture.
A positive psychology of humility would need to address the following issues:
Hindrances to Humility
Competition is clearly the No.1 hindrance. Humility is probably the most difficult virtue to achieve, mostly because egotistic pride works so much better than humility in a competitive society. Think of all the star players in major-league sports; how many really stand out as a good role model of personal humility?
Success is another hindrance. Feeling good about success can easily lapse into pride, especially when others heap praises on you. Pastor Brett has this to say about the temptation of pride: “Of all the problems Pastors face, this is one of the hardest. On the one hand, you have to completely die to yourself and be a humble servant, and on the other you feel God’s power flow through you and experience His inspiration and begin to feel like God uses you because you are special. This is where pride sneaks in and your head begins to swell.”
Thirdly, even reflecting on one’s own humility can be a hindrance. Humility thrives only when one’s attention is directed away from it towards serving others. It withers away whenever attention is directed toward its presence. When I congratulate myself for making progress in humility, or when “I thank my God for my humility” (Shakespeare), I actually hinder its development.
The Development of Humility
As long as people firmly believe that winning is the only thing that matters, it is not possible to develop humility. However, when people realize the enormous benefits of humility on both personal and societal levels, they would be more inclined to cultivate it.
There are two complementary approaches to the development of humanity. On the macro level, we need to embrace a religion that incorporates the following beliefs, individually and collectively:
- Self-awareness of our own mortality
- Belief in life after death
- Realizing our own inadequacies and wrong doings
- Realizing our need for redemption and cleansing
- Realizing our need for help and guidance
- Believing in a spiritual and transcendental reality
- Believing in the need to submit to a higher power
Humility needs a proper religious home, because it is not an isolated virtue that can stand on its own. It is one of the few virtues that are intimately related to our assumptive world and core values.
On the micro level, we need to develop the habit of humble practices on a daily basis. These include the following skills and exercises:
- Acknowledging our wrong doing
- Receiving correction and feedback graciously
- Refraining from criticizing others
- Forgiving others who have wronged us
- Apologizing to others who have been wronged by us
- Enduring unfair treatments with patience and a forgiving spirit
- Thinking and speaking about the good things of other people
- Rejoicing over other people’s success
- Counting our blessings for everything, good and bad
- Seeking opportunities to serve others
- Willing to remain anonymous in helping others
- Showing gratitude for our successes
- Giving due credit to others for our successes
- Treating success as a responsibility to do more for others
- Willing to learn from our failures
- Assuming responsibility for our failures
- Accepting our limitations and circumstances
- Accepting social reality of discrimination and prejudice
- Treating all people with respect regardless of their social status
- Enjoying the lowly status of being an outsider and a nobody
Benefits of Humility
Just imagine how the above beliefs and practices can dramatically transform one’s life for good. If we were to develop a reliable and valid instrument to measure humility, I would predict that humility is associated with the following psychological benefits:
- A reduction of anxiety, fear and depression
- A reduction in conflict, anger and aggression
- An increase in happiness and well-being
- An increase in optimism
- An improvement in friendship and intimate relationships
- Openness for new experiences and new learning
- Greater empathy, compassion and altruism
- Higher job satisfaction and morale at work
Systemic research on the above will help create a body of scientific knowledge on humility. It will be the cornerstone of developing a paradoxical positive psychology of what appears to be a human weakness.
I have been entertaining the idea of writing a book entitled: “I’m glad that I’m a nobody: A positive psychology of humility”, because such a book will resonate with the great multitudes of common folks. This brief essay provides some ideas of what the book will look like.
As I survey all the tall walls and hierarchies erected around us, and as I watch the so called “big shots” strutting across the stage, wearing an arrogant but anxious look, I can honestly say: “I’m glad that I’m a nobody.” This statement is no sour grape, because there is indeed no place safer and freer than the lowly spot of humility. The curtain will fall soon enough on all of us. What will outlive us is not the applause, but the life lived.
Thank God that He has created so many nobodies. I am particularly thankful that “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (Corinthians: 1:3). The world is preserved and enhanced by millions of ordinary folks doing honest work without fanfare, without recognition.
I would like to end this brief essay with an inspiring statement by Helen Keller:
I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.
Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap..and others don’t. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Greenleaf, R. K. (1991). The servant as leader. Indianapolis: The Greenleaf Center.
Templeton, J. (2000). Possibilities for over one hundredfold more spiritual information: The humble approach in theology and science. Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press.